Pope Francis ends historic Iraq visit with message of peace

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Pope Francis ended his historic tour of Iraq on Monday, departing by plane from Baghdad after visiting conflict-torn cities, meeting Muslim and Christian leaders and preaching peace and coexistence over war.

Francis waved one last time before boarding a plane flying the Vatican and Iraqi flags from its cockpit windows.

President Barham Salih accompanied the 84-year-old pontiff down a red carpet to his flight.

During Pope Francis’s trip, the first ever papal visit to Iraq, he toured four cities, including Mosul, the former Islamic State stronghold where vast areas still lie in ruins, telling Iraqis that “peace is more powerful than war.”

Intense security surrounded his trip to Iraq. Military pick-up trucks, mounted with machine guns, escorted his motorcade and plainclothes security men mingled in Mosul, the butts of their guns peeking out of black backpacks slung around the front of their bodies.

In the pope’s Mosul mass on Sunday, Muslim and Christian residents in the ruined Iraqi city spoke of their lives under the brutal rule of ISIL.

Much of the old city was destroyed in 2017 during the bloody battle by Iraqi forces and an international military coalition to drive ISIL out.

In an apparent direct reference to ISIL, Francis said hope could never be “silenced by the blood spilled by those who pervert the name of God to pursue paths of destruction”.

The pontiff also made a historical first in meeting Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric in the holy city of Najaf.

On Sunday, Francis also flew by helicopter to Qaraqosh, a Christian town that was overrun by ISIL fighters, and visited a church whose courtyard was used by fighters as a shooting range.

He then celebrated Mass in Erbil, capital of the autonomous Kurdish region, where thousands packed a stadium to attend.

He received the most tumultuous welcomes of his visit in Qaraqosh and Erbil, where most people were not wearing masks or practicing social distancing despite a rising number of COVID-19 cases in the country.

At the end of the Mass, the last official event of his visit, Francis told the crowd: “Iraq will always remain with me, in my heart”.

He closed by saying “salam, salam, salam” (peace, peace, peace) in Arabic.

Iraqis welcomed the pope and said it was a chance for the world to see their perpetually crisis-hit nation in a new light.

Iraq suffers from chronic mismanagement and corruption, and a steady level of violence often linked to the region’s U.S.-Iran rivalry 18 years after the United States invaded.

Reuters, Aljazeera

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